Over my recent vacation to Canada to introduce our new baby to family we had one of those frightening moments. He was sitting next to me on the sofa as I was watching him play with a toy. Thus far he had been a pretty stationary baby. He was starting to move more and I was paying more attention to him so he didn’t fall. My aunt asked me a question and I turned my head and just like that I hear people yell out and I turned my head back to see him dive onto the floor, landing head first, his head bending backwards. I picked up quickly and held him close, his cry was different. My wife then grabbed him from me, not because she was mad at me (I think) but just her own motherly need to hold him. I was on the verge of tears. My head was swimming with thoughts that I had broken his spine and he’d be paralyzed or that I had caused some other brain damage…perhaps even fatal. Thankfully he was fine, although if he gets a B in math class I’m sure I’ll feel responsible.
In reflection I thought about how quickly such horrible tragedies can happen. What if the fall had been a bit harder? Hit a different part of the head? At times, life seems to be a matter of fractions of seconds and millimeters (inches for my American friends). It made me think about some recent stories I read about parents who have lost their children. Earlier this year a bookcase killed a 3 year old girl as she tried to climb it and it tipped over killing her. These kinds of things happen often enough now that we should be more aware, but there are literally a lot of possible dangers out there and I am not sure it’s possible to prepare for every one of them. Very recently, footage at a London train station showed a baby carriage blowing onto the tracks as the parents stopped to help someone with their bags. Fortunately the mother was able to get the carriage off the tracks in time, but the stroller literally gets turned by the gust of wind caused by the approaching train and quickly ends up on the tracks. There is nothing remarkably different about these two events other than some fortune in spotting the trouble before it was too late. I am sure there are many more parents who have been fortunate that a similar accident has not killed the child only injured them. Or perhaps they caught the impending accident in time by catching something before it fell or moving the child out of harm’s way. Perhaps when the child was a little younger and lighter, or the bookcase a little heavier they saw it teeter a bit and said “Hey, I should secure that.” The positive outcome is most often the outcome. Children can take more bumps and bruises than we think, and tears are often temporary. No child dies from crying no matter how much we don’t want to see those tears. But we simply can’t predict or foresee all possible dangers.
These two incidents and the one I experienced are good examples of how habit influences our lives. We often get used to routine and what we consider as usual that we don’t take into account the unexpected. After 7 months of my son not trying to roll off the couch you come to sort of expect that it won’t happen, even if that seems stupid in hindsight. I am sure the parents who lost their daughter to the falling shelves, never thought she would try to climb it, or never had seen her try before. I’m sure all of us who are regular train travelers are well aware of the gust of wind that rushes ahead of a train, especially in an enclosed station. How many of us might think about how that wind might push a stroller?
The routine can even lead to more unfathomable mistakes. Such as not realizing your child is in the car seat behind you and leaving them in a hot car for hours. If you are a parent or just a compassionate person it takes just a second to imagine what the infant must have gone through. There is no way your mind can take you through that slow death. You will hit a wall before it gets really terrible and all you know is that unspeakable darkness comes after.
These incidents unfortunately also end up serving as a reminder of the lack of compassion that is so visible in society today. The comments that people make to these parents are truly horrifying. Scores of “perfect parents” who think they’ve done everything right and would never make the mistakes these parents did. These perfect parents are calling for the gallows instead of realizing that the person you are criticizing is in a massive amount of pain. If it could be displayed as a physical wound it would be a chest wound to the heart with the patient ending up in the intensive care unit in critical condition. And how “perfect” are these parents anyway? Have these parents never had their kid fall? Driven over the speed limit with their kid? Driven in a busy city with their kid? Have they never lost their kid in a crowd? Have their kid’s sweaty hand slip from their grip in a dangerous situation? Did they never have to watch their kid after having a couple of drinks, perhaps affecting their judgment or reaction time? There are more possibly dangerous scenarios than I can list, and the fact that nothing ever happened to them during that time is the only reason they are not one of these tragic stories.
Now don’t get me wrong. There are terrible parents out there. There are parents who do unspeakably horrible things to their children, or who are just irresponsible and are neglectful to their children causing them great harm, mentally, physically, and sometimes fatally. It is actually the harm to children that led me away from the idea of their being a loving deity out there, but perhaps that is a post for another time. The point is that the death of a child is always a horrible thing regardless of how it happens and so it is understandable that we would get angry. That feeling, however, does not give us the right to lash out at other people in pain. We all make mistakes, and many of them go unnoticed because nothing bad ever comes close to happening while we are making them. You want to get angry, direct that energy into something useful; education, better safety standards, helping others.
These perfect parents, even if it were possible often sound like the kind of parent who hovers over their kid, never letting them play just because they might get a bruised knee and keeping them so far from danger that they are more likely to get brought down by the simplest things in their adult life because they’ve never had to cope on their own. And here’s the rub – as parents we must walk that thin line between protecting our children and giving our children the freedom to overcome their own obstacles in life. Children need to face fear, and they need to solve their own problems and make mistakes while doing it. Children also need their parents to be good people, and not just good guardians. The London couple helping out somebody with their baggage is a great act of kindness that kids need to see. If you think that you are a positive individual who is a good role model for your children then part of you must continue to be the person you’ve always been. Kids may take over your life, but you are not your kids. You have your own identity and, again, if you value yourself then part of being a good parent is just being what you think is a good human being (good luck in getting an agreement on that anytime soon).
Finally, I want to quickly express my concern for the trend in wanting to criminalize every parent for these mistakes. All the details of the case rarely get reported and unless you are intimately involved in the case you really don’t know the truth. Furthermore, even though many parents do not face criminal charges thankfully for these horrific mistakes, some do simply because they don’t have what society considers having a “good character”. Maybe you occasionally do some marijuana, maybe you flirt a little with other girls or had an affair. Maybe you just aren’t a rich white person.
All I can tell you is that had my son truly been severely injured or killed in his fall, I can guarantee you that no prison would have walls stronger than the one I would have built for myself. Nothing you could say would be harsher than what I would be telling myself. I will guarantee you that you do not love your child any more than I do and though your negative judgment would be despicable, I would still never wish on you such pain in my anguish. So if you can’t direct your anger and sadness to the loss of a sweet child into something helpful at the very least remember the golden rule, which I hope you are teaching your children, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it at all.”